A while ago, I was complaining that I wanted a book that made me neglect all my responsibilities. Then I was complaining that there weren’t enough lgbt YA novels. Enter Kelly Quindlen with her novel Her Name in the Sky.
This past Saturday, the temperatures in my lovely city finally cracked the minuses. It was plus 1. It was practically balmy. So, me, a cup of coffee, a super warm blanket, and a fluffy hoodie curled up on the balcony swing with the book. I lasted forty-five minutes before my fingers were so cold I could no longer turn the pages. The fact that I made it that long is a testament to how much I was enjoying this story. Once inside, I made another cup of coffee and curled up on the couch with the book. Next thing I knew, my stomach was yelling at me and it was 4:00. I was about 2/3 of the way through the book. I had shit to get done, so I had to put it aside, but I finished it on Sunday.
The story of Hannah and Baker and their burgeoning love affair was exactly the story I was looking for. Two young people struggling to come to terms with their emotions while balancing school and friends and, in this case, religion. I was engrossed. The religious overtones in the book are incredibly strong, but that drives the story forward. The students go to a Catholic school and there is a priest as a regular fixture in their education. They are being brought up in the strictest of catholic ways. But it’s clear from the start that Hannah and her friends are getting tired of it. Their mocking of the prayers during the pep rally in the first chapter help to humanize students who could have come off as simply the pretty, popular kids: the football captain, the school president, a track star, etc.
I didn’t go to catholic school, and this book makes me super grateful. How on earth is the school allowed to have so much influence into these students’ lives? How could a party held outside of school hours, off school grounds, with no criminal charges, lead a student, and his parents, to fear that his university acceptance would be withdrawn? I frequently wanted to punch Father Simon in the face. Right in his stupid face. But he and Mr. Manceau are balanced out by Ms. Carpenter and Mrs. Shackleford.
Ms. Carpenter is rad. She’s the voice I hope every young person has access to when they’re coming to terms with their sexuality. I was angry when she was fired, but it was also understandable. Teachers sign contracts. They agree to behave in a certain way. When they don’t, they risk being fired. And while I think it is loathsome that a teacher is punished for counteracting hate, part of me understands the schools’ decision. What bothered me more was the students’ reaction. They blame Hannah for Carpenter’s dismissal and never question her or school’s role in what happened. Not a single student asks how the school got their fingers on a private email. Not one of them raises any outrage that there is such a lack of privacy in their communications. No one stands up to support Ms. Carpenter for going against the wishes of school by responding to the email. And Michele… ugh, that girl. She takes every opportunity to make things worse. It didn’t even feel like she was making a big deal because she thinks homosexuality is wrong. It felt more like she just wanted to make things harder for the girls she saw as stealing her boyfriend. High school students – they rarely see the bigger picture.
But Baker sees the bigger picture, and it drives her right to the brink. She and Hannah have been best friends for years, and now they’re attracted to each other. They have a few drunken make out sessions and then a surprisingly descriptive sexual encounter – also while drunk. These are the only moments Baker can allow herself to give in to her feelings. But this last encounter shoves the two girls in opposite directions. Hannah becomes more certain of what she wants. Baker shuts down completely, refusing to talk to Hannah for weeks and breaking up their group of friends. When Hannah bumps into Baker and Clay after the couple has just had sex is heartbreaking. You can almost feel Hannah falling apart, even though she’s not 100% sure what happened. The actions of the students feel realistic. Sometimes, they’re deep and thoughtful, sometimes their shallow, sometimes they’re cruel just to divert attention.
So, to recap, I liked the story. The story was excellent. The story was almost perfect. The book has some problems.
This is a self-published novel, which is how we get the sex scene (which was a great addition, honestly, I love that she just went for it), and the author is clearly attached to her story. I completely understand this. These characters are important to her. However, the book needed a good review by a seasoned, unbiased editor. There are several continuity errors that would/should have been caught by that review. Things like the fact that cell phones don’t have ring tones. But, the most jarring of these happens at the end of the novel. Baker goes away after she gets out of the hospital, and we’re led to believe that she’s gone for a really long time. But she’s back and making up with Hannah by the second week of June. When exactly did she leave? How long was she in the hospital? It doesn’t feel like she was away that long. Then the final chapter starts in August, they’re packing for school and going on their first official date, but on the very next page it’s July and Hannah is thinking about how comfortable she is with Baker. Then it’s the second week in August and they’re making up with their friends. The flow is hindered in the very last thing the reader gets and mars the parts that came before it.
Now let’s talk about metaphors. All the metaphors. They are all very precisely crafted. They are all full of the author’s passion. They are almost all overworked and the novel could do with about 90% fewer. The comparison that pops into my head is Tim Gunn looking at an outfit on Project Runway and suggesting it’s a bit tortured.
You can see how badly the creator wants it, but what they’ve created is painful to the consumer. You hate to point it out, but you know it has to be done. Metaphors are stacked on metaphors on top of even more, you got it, metaphors. We only need one. It reads better. It creates more impact. There was one, which I’m having trouble locating, that actually made me scoff out loud. It detracted from an otherwise strong story. I wish there had just been fewer of them.
Another suggestion for the author as she works on her second book, watch for repeat descriptions. I know that this school uniform includes an Oxford shirt because it’s described that way every single time a shirt is mentioned. If someone tucks one in, spills something on it, adjusts their tie, we’re told it’s with their Oxford shirt. I remember. And I know that Baker’s eyes are chicory. I’ll never forget that. Please let me remember on my own.
This is the concern I have with selfpublishing. I’ve considered going that route. I have a story that would appeal to the same audience of this story, but am I too close to it? Food for thought. I would absolutely recommend this book as a great coming of age romance, but with the caveat that it suffers from a tad bit of overwriting. Honestly, I could talk about this story for hours. I’m going to recommend it to some friends so I can do just that.